Step-by-Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success

How to Earn the Right

Think about it: people that you want for clients start out as strangers. They don't know about you and your firm. So you can't expect them to jump into a long-term relationship with you before they move from stranger, to acquaintance, to friend, to lover, and then to loyal partner.

I don't need to spell out the analogy to dating in detail for you to get the idea, but this point is key: don't expect strangers to commit to your professional services until you move them through the trust- building phases of developing a relationship.

Think of marketing as a path to earning your clients' commitment. For definitions of each phase, read on. For ideas on how to move through each phase, read the rest of this article.

Strangers. Strangers don't know who you are and don't see the difference between you and others offering your same service. At first glance, you might be another pretty face in the crowd, but that's about it. The key here is to catch and hold attention from the right kinds of prospects.

Acquaintances. In the business world, Acquaintances shop based on price and availability. They won't pay for value and want the goods fast. Off-the-shelf is fine, with no customization required. You get little or no loyalty from Acquaintances. While not the way to grow a professional service firm, there are ways to serve this market, as well as move through this segment.

Friends. At this phase, you might be working closely with a client, or you might still be earning their trust. In general, Friends tend to have some kind of working agreement in place that includes pricing, service and deliverables. Whether you've done one project or a small amount of work for a Friend, there are still other fish in the sea.

Lovers...are highly bonded business partners in explicitly negotiated, contractually defined relationships of commitment and trust. They enjoy all the benefits of a trust-based relationship including regular, frequent and open communication, insider benefits, discounts, and customized solutions.

Loyal Partners...have been working together for some time, usually years. They easily refer business back and forth to each other and truly believe that they are the best solution in the market for the niche they serve. They've learned a lot from each other and each is better for having known and worked with the other.

To move your prospects and clients from Strangers to Loyal Partners, give these things a try:

To catch a Stranger's eye: You've got to turn heads. This means knowing whom you want to attract, and then communicating the right things to get and hold their attention. In other words, you've got to position yourself well against the competition, and speak (or write) in terms of your target audience's WIIFM (What's In It For Me?).

Get the first 10 words dead right, or it won't matter how brilliant your next 100 words are because your prospect won't stick around. It's like the difference between a cheesy pick-up line and a thoughtful conversation-starter. When you introduce yourself, put content on your homepage, or write the headline of an article, communicate with your target audience's interests in mind.

To move from Strangers to Acquaintances: You've attracted attention, so now what? You must keep your prospect engaged. The best way to do that is to ask them questions about themselves, related to problems you can solve. At this point in the "conversation" (while networking, on your website, in an article, through direct mail, on the phone, in a sales meeting) it should be all about them, not about you.

Instead of going on about your services, use short questionnaires, self-assessments and attentive questions to...

* Ask about what they struggle with, wish they could do better, or want from your kind of professional service;

* Learn as much as you can about their world and reciprocate slowly by answering their questions;

* Let them control the pacing, without overwhelming them with too much information that they haven't asked for.

* Determine if you can send an article related to their needs that they might find of value.

Basic (but effective) relationship-building tactics include a hand- written follow-up note, sending the article you mentioned, and politely gauging interest in more contact. At this point, it may be appropriate to take another step to get to know each other better (a first date!) in the form of a follow up call, meeting over coffee, or office visit.

To move from Acquaintances to Friends: This may be where a prospect decides to buy your services, but probably not. It's too early - you haven't built your case yet for how you're uniquely qualified to do a better job at meeting your prospect's needs than anyone else in your field.

To build your case, you need to demonstrate your reliability, staying power and visibility (i.e., through a WIIFM-oriented e- newsletter); authority (through credentials, testimonials, case studies, and awards); value (by clearly communicating outcomes and results, and demystifying how you'll work together); and minimize the buyer's risk (through guarantees, references, follow through).

This could be when a prospect is willing to spend a little bit of money with you on something perceived as low-risk. For example, you could sell your expertise packaged into information-based products such as workbooks, lessons or talks on tape or CD, and premium reports. All of these things let prospects get to know you better, deepen trust, and help move their confidence in you to the next level.

To move from Friends to Lovers: You've built your case, demonstrated to your client's satisfaction that you're a safe bet, and continue to stand out from the crowd. You've discussed the tough things like money, decision-making authority, and possible derailleurs. Deepening the commitment with you feels natural, safe and like the right thing to do.

As Lovers, you'll be engaged in regular and long-term business. You'll learn a lot about each other, communication preferences, how to navigate conflict, and how to manage expectations. You'll only sustain the relationship at this level if you keep it fresh by continuing to gauge and meet their needs. You can't take their business for granted. Innovation is important, based on what your best clients ask for or struggle with.

To move from Lovers to Loyal Partners: Newer, flashier competitors may come on the scene, but your Loyal Partners aren't going anywhere. You alone are their number one choice for the professional service your firm provides. If someone else approaches them, they'll let you know about it and give you a chance to meet their needs first. As with any successful long-term relationship, you've learned to use conflict constructively, don't take their loyalty for granted, and continue to reward them for their trust and commitment.

In a worthwhile relationship, you can't rush something good. Think about moving through these phases over time - not in one conversation or even two meetings. When it's too good too soon, relationships are usually hollow or troubled (with clients and in love!). I've learned to slow down, pace the conversation, and ask a lot of questions. The results are consistently better and longer lasting.

Whatever you do, your message and actions have got to be authentic and in your clients' best interests. Any smart prospect or client will see right through the "lines" of a Player - someone who's only out for the score. I doubt that's how you want to be positioned in the marketplace, and it's certainly no way to build a business.

If this sounds like a lot of work, you're right. But consider the payoff: rock solid, long lasting relationships with clients that deepen and enrich everyone over time.